Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Atomic Beauty

I've dedicated most any free second in the past 48 hrs to wrestling with a definitive conclusion to a paper about nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Naturally, I mentioned the accessibility of weapons-grade material from Russia or one of the former Soviet republics. But I completely overlooked the following story found at www.breitbart.com, which I would REALLY like to work in somehow:
Extra hot: Russian beauty contest for nuke power workers
Jan 30 10:57 AM US/Eastern

The nuclear power sector in Russia and across the former Soviet Union is inviting female employees to compete in Miss Atom-2007, a contest to discover the industry's most radiant beauty. "There are a lot of beautiful women in the Russian nuclear sector," said Ilya Platonov, who runs the www.nuclear.ru site and is organising the contest.

The number of applicants for the Miss Atom title has trebled since the first competition in 2004, Platonov told AFP, reaching 220 last year. Competitors must be aged 18-35 and work in the nuclear sector in Russia or other ex-Soviet states, or at least be studying nuclear science at university, Rosenergoatom, which runs Russia's nuclear power stations, said. They have until February 20 to send in photos and CVs to www.nuclear.ru. Voting will take place online and the winner and runners-up will later be given awards at a ceremony at Russia's atomic energy agency, Rosatom, in Moscow.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Road Rage

Like many big cities, traffic in Moscow is terrible.

I found some interesting statistics about the traffic from Pravda.ru, where a study by the Academy of Forecasting noted:

Congestion Will Be a Serious Problem
Traffic in the city will come to a halt once the number of cars in Moscow exceeds 4.5 million, provided that there is no improvement in the city’s road intersections and parking lots. In total, the number of cars owned by Muscovites are slightly above 3 million these days. According to statistics, 10-15% of those cars move about the city at a time, while the remaining ones sit in parking lots or garages. With about 250 thousand cars on the roads, the traffic in the city creeps at a snail’s pace. The traffic will collapse once the number of cars on the roads exceeds 300 thousand at a time. The traffic in Moscow is expected to come to a standstill sometime around 2012.

Even more interesting was the emphasis on the credibility of our futurologists:
The future of Russia’s capital is not told by some soothsayers gazing at the coffee grounds. Predictions are provided by experts holding academic degrees, employed by the Academy of Forecasting.

I wonder what it takes to be qualified as a futurologist?

Finally, the Economist relates that "An organisation called 'The Register of Non-Drinking Men', established to help Russian women find sober husbands, has a new mission. It has set up a website for people who are fed up with two- to four-hour commutes; stressed drivers can try to swap jobs with someone who lives nearer their workplace. It remains to be seen how successful this venture will be."

You can view their traffic website at http://www.antiprobka.ru/

Even though it's in Russian, there are some great illustrations that get the story across quite well. First, a picture flashes, saying "when you work near home" and it shows happy people and families smiling, fishing and spending time together. Then, a second picture flashes, with the caption "when you work far from home", with angry people on the roads and crowding into the metro.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Dear Mr. President

I have been searching long and hard for the appropriate Russian souvenir. I have a small, traditional collection of nesting dolls, lacquer boxes, and scarves, but I wanted something more. Something different. Something unusual.

During a trip to GUM, I found it at last. Mr. Putin likes to keep an eye on his country, and in honor of his leadership, I decided to purchase my very own Vladimir Putin Coffee Mug. Now, he and his watchful eye can travel everywhere, with ease.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Ubiquitous Pig

Russia really, *really* celebrates the New Year. First, there was the "regular" New Year on December 31, 2006. Then there was the "old" New Year (lunar calendar) which came in January.

This is also the Year of the Pig.

So, they were selling pigs everywhere. Stuffed animals. Calendars. Pictures. Keychains. Even LIVE pigs. Real ones. (Charlotte's Web, anyone?) At the market, people walked around carrying pigs and trying to sell them. One of my classes gave me this handy stretchy pig to put in a window or in the car.

I asked my sister about this, wondering how it is that Russia celebrates the astrological new year. She just shrugged and observed, "Russia is next to China".

Russians love holidays and superstitions, so I guess it makes sense. I have just one question: What will we do when it's the Year of the Rat?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

How to Make Friends and Influence People?

Answer: Feed them.

Last night, I began teaching conversation class (two of them). Sometimes it's hard to get everyone started, especially at the beginning. So, I passed around a plate of M&Ms and told everyone to take two. One was to eat and one should be saved.

Although they didn't know it yet, each color corresponded with a topic (yellow-hobbies, orange-family, brown-school or work, red-New Years, green-something funny or happy). To my relief, it was a great icebreaker and I didn't even have to invent more topics for the rest of the class. I sat back and the conversation steered itself as everyone took turns sharing and asking each other questions.

I noticed last semester that food began to play an increasingly important role in my classroom. Perhaps because I like to eat. I started making tea sometimes, for my students, and then it led to occasional cooking spurts, and somehow spiraled into a grand project in one class where the discussion topic was "food" and I made everyone bring something to eat.

Having become more of a food junkie since living near San Francisco, and reading more about business as I try to decide what to do next in life, I was delighted to find a NY Times article the other week noting that cooking is increasingly being used as a team-building activity outside of work. So if you don't just want to drive the golf cart around and heckle people, which is what I usually do when I'm trying to "golf", you can set up your very own "Iron Chef" style competition/gathering at a local restaurant. Check it out.


Diplomacy Karaoke?

This is slightly off topic, but I had to share. I'm currently working on an M.A. in Diplomacy from Norwich University. I have two papers left to write, and I will finally, finally graduate this summer! In June, I'll fly out for "residency week" which is an opportunity to present our papers, meet classmates and have a little bit of fun.

Today I received an electronic survey soliciting input for possible activities:

The Diplomacy Program
1. Please rank the following activities in order of preference (1-5).
Online Strategy Games
Diplomacy Charades
Diplomacy "who wants to be a millionaire?"
Diplomacy Movie and Discussion
2. Please suggest some diplomacy-related movie titles.
3. Other Activity Suggestions:

That's right folks, diplomacy charades. I'll work on my best impression of American unilateralism. And I don't know what we could sing. If you have any bright ideas for movies, songs, or activities, let me know. It's official. I'm a geek.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


SNOW!!! That's how long it takes for rain to go away...from mid-November until 21 January. I don't know if it will last, but we finally have snow in Russia. And all seems right with the world.

Yesterday I met with one of my students. She and I spent a few hours in a cafe, then walked in the park for about an hour. I took photos of the church, the park, the snow, and there's even one of me. I want to ride the horse sometime.

Friday, January 19, 2007


Not that kind of change. I'm talking about money. Change is a precious commodity here. There aren't enough smaller bills to go around and it's hard to get change. If you go to the store and you don't have exact change, people give you the evil eye. If you have a 1000 ruble note they might get upset and refuse to sell you something.

The most reliable place we've found that accepts "large" bills (equal to about $40 USD) is Grossmart, the semi-westernized grocery store down the street. Westernized in the sense that selection is pretty good and you're allowed to look at and touch things by yourself. There are still stores where everything is under glass, and you have to look at the selection and then say what you want. But Russianized in that there are a bunch of people employed to stand around and stare at you to make sure you aren't stealing something, and you have to check any extra bags at the door before you can shop, so you don't smuggle food into your bag and walk out with it.

On the opposite extreme is really small change - kopecks. Everyone hates kopecks. It's a game to see who gets stuck with them. During the past week, I've received an avalanche of kopeck-change from buses and marshrukas.

This morning on the bus, I counted out 7 rubles, almost all in 10 or 50-kopeck coins. I passed it to the ticket lady, who swore and asked me if it was really 7 rubles. I said yes, of course. As I sat and watched her count, I felt a moment of personal victory at winning the change game - for today, at least.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Dom Knege

We quickly discovered a favorite spot in Petersburg. Dom Knege (House of Books). Most wonderful about this place (aside from, obviously, the fact that it is full of books) was the cafe on the top floor. Dom Knege was recently upgraded and modernized, and being a bit tired and hungry, we were very happy to find a cafe on the top floor. Someone has traveled outside of Russia and seen Barnes and Noble. It was good and not expensive. More importantly, we snagged window seats, from which we were able to people-watch for hours everyone going to and fro beneath us. Dom Knege became a default hangout and meeting place for the rest of the trip. On 25 December, they recognized "American" Christmas by hanging Santa hats on all of the pictures in the cafe.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


As the locals call it, is a beautiful city. It reminds me a little of San Francisco. Perhaps simply because they're both port cities, but something in its character felt like home.

I do love water and I liked the canals. I wanted to try to go canoeing (sp?) but no one else seemed up for it. Here is an amazing view in front of the apartment where I stayed.

We spent 3 hours at the Hermitage and barely made a dent in it. You can see me hanging out with Puskin by the entrance to the Russian Museum.

Health 101

Much like seatbelts, refrigerators seem to be optional. I noticed this first with dairy products such as milk and cream, but then it dawned on me I was simply observing small data points in a much larger trend.

This should have been a warning.

Just before break, we had a "Russian lunch" where the staff here cooked traditional Russian foods. The next day, I went rummaging in the fridge for leftovers (a favorite money saving trick in any part of the world. Plus, hey, then I wouldn't have to cook).

"Nicole, the salyanka (a certain soup) is in the garage fridge."

(inner voice: wow, I didn't know we had a fridge in the garage. In fact I've never really even been in the garage.)

So, I stepped out into the garage where I learned that "fridge" meant the soup was sitting in a big pot, balancing precariously on the edge of a box. I experienced this inner struggle between my American half, which said 'this is a dumb idea', and my lazy half, which said 'all the Russian staff thinks this is normal and it hasn't killed them'.

Several hours later, I was sitting in a restaurant with my students to celebrate our end of semester party. A wave of nausea and a quick trip to the restroom convinced me to never, ever, ever "eat from the garage fridge" again.

Last winter was one for the books, with temperatures dipping to -40*C. I think usually, it's so cold for so long during the year that it's normal to leave things sitting out. This year posts record highs, with no significant snow sticking on the ground as we approach late January.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Box Envy

I decided I have the coolest friends in the world. So this is a thank you to everyone. As I think my sister put it, "your friends know how to be friends over long distances". And it's true. There's been a steady stream of packages with all sorts of nifty goodies inside and I get terribly excited every time I get a slip saying there's something sitting at the post office. In case you were wondering, this is where the chocolate, goldfish, tea and coffee go. Supporting morale on the front lines of American EFL instruction.

(this is also a belated thank you for all the mail you sent while I was in Iraq - leading members of my office to exclaim, "dang, LT, your friends send you more stuff than my wife does!")

So, here's to you guys...

This was a box opening commemorated at the beginning of last semester. I think I'm throwing or hitting someone with a red pen. I'm not exactly sure. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, I get a little carried away.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


Our first official outing in Kiev was to the zoopark. The weather was slightly brisk, but nice enough and I haven't been to a zoo in a long time so I enjoyed walking around looking at all the animals. We saw tigers and giraffes and camels and snakes and fish and warm-weather penguins from South America (Peru?) and birds and peacocks and bison and ducks and an elephant.

Alas, alack, we did not find the nocerig anywhere. Heartbreaking. And I love its name so much. I'll let you guess what this animal is in English.

And please, no thumbing your nose at the animals.


First, sneaky is the snow that snuck in sometime last night or early this morning.

But next, it's me...I got up early today to creep out of the apartment without disturbing my host family, who would likely panic and want to know 1) why I was awake so early? 2) why I was leaving the house with wet hair? 3) why was I leaving without eating an entire frying pan's worth of fried egg fluff with cheese and grease in it? (to each their own - I just like fruit and cereal sometimes)

I was doing so well. I had my laptop and my shoulder bag all bundled up and stuffed with copies of my paper-in-progress and dripping tomes with titles such as "The Use of Force: Military Power and International Politics", "From War to Peace: Fateful Decisions in International Politics" and "America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq" that nearly scattered across the floor of the marshruka (van-taxi)as I stumbled into a seat. But I did not anticipate the presence of snowflakes that had been piling onto the ground while I slept, or the wind that blew small pieces of them into my eyes and hair.

It is quieter when it snows. I'm glad I saw it in the early morning before anyone else got to.

Sneaky is also Gosha, the American Home cat, who jumped into my lap suddenly when I was midway through a sentence about why America would benefit from increased participation in multinational conflict management. He pretends like he wants to hang out on my lap, but really I know he's just eying my sweater, which does handle double duty as a claw-sharpener.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Nicest People I Know

On my last day of class, I passed out my cell phone and email address so my students could keep in touch. During the holiday, I was rather touched to receive text messages from several of them. Many wrote on Dec 25th because they know this is "American" or new calendar Christmas and they wanted to wish me well. I was impressed that they a) remembered Americans would be celebrating Christmas on this day b) thought of me, even though I was no where near Vladimir at the time and c) sent me some very long messages wishing me well.

Here are some of their notes: "Hello Nicole. Merry Christmas. May all your dreams come true." "Nicole hello. Merry Christmas. I wish you a happy holiday, successes in your life and the best in the world for you. I wait our new meeting." "I am sorry Nicole that it is night, but I want to congratulate you with Christmas! I wish you patience, good luck! You are one of the best teachers! Don't miss about house! Believe in yourself and your will succeed! Urrah!"

And even on New Years - "Hello Nicole! I congratulate you on the New Year! May you have happiness in the year ahead!"

As you can see, holidays are important in Russia, and everyone shares in celebrating them. Our winter break was a good two weeks (it might be the most relaxing I've ever done in the past ten years). The New York Times even wrote a funny article about it a few days ago which you can read at http://nytimes.com/aponline/world/AP-Russia-The-Long-Holiday.html

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Is unnecessarily dangerous. Unlike California, there is no such concept as pedestrian right-of-way. This confused me for my first 3 days in Russia.

On Day 2, as my host brother escorted me to my new place of employment and we darted across traffic, he noted: "Don't worry! No one has been killed in this spot for two years." And this is a statistic for a city to be proud of??! As one teacher put it, "Russia is the only country where you can get hit by a car while walking on the sidewalk" since cars drive everywhere and anywhere they want to at any moment.

One night we were driving around the city when we saw a car wreck surrounded by several ambulances. "Nekolye, see what can happen when you walk across the street? Be careful in Russia!" WHY is this considered normal? I have noticed that my expectations of what services the government should be able to provide are higher than the average Russian citizen's.

This morning I was examining the rain/slush/ice consistency through the window when I heard a dog screaming because it was hit by a car. On the street directly in front of me. He yelled for awhile, then went running away on 3 legs, with the fourth held up in the air - hopefully towards someone or something that could help him.

Oh Russia

Amongst ourselves, we've discussed the fact that everyone who studies Russia is a little bit odd. It's a country and a language that sometimes, you just love to hate.

As explained in one guidebook, "customer service as a concept does not really exist in Russia". No, no it doesn't. There is no customer service. Only a game, called Who Can Be The Biggest A----le?

I met Mandy at the post office so we could pick up some Christmas packages. It was the central post office, where people are unfriendly and I don't have any personal connections. (Personal connections are really how anything actually gets done in Russia.) Usually, I find this helpful. In the smaller post office, I am friends with the parcel lady. She knows me. She smiles and says hello when I see her. On this day, no such luck.

Post Office Drama Queen (with dramatic sighing and rolling of eyes, in Russian): Why are you here so late? I can't believe you came so late! This package has been here for a long time. You are going to have to pay money to get it from me. You shouldn't have been so late.

Me(in Russian): I was on vacation. I was in the Ukraine. I just got your note.(Inner voice: So obviously, I couldn't pick up the package. And, you've probably been closed and home drinking vodka the whole time I was away. You probably didn't even deliver the note saying I had a parcel for pickup until today.)

(( another Post Office Girl enters from state right ))

Post Office Girl: How are you? What's going on in here?

Drama Queen: Oh, these girls are foreigners and they're so stupid. They don't understand about the parcel and why they have to pay money and it's just *so* difficult for me to have to explain it to them, etc.

Mandy(in Russian): I can understand everything you're saying about us.

Drama Queen: [Flashes a fake smile accompanied by nervous laughter. Grudgingly accepts my late fee of 28 rubles and gives me my two parcels. Begins talking to Post Office Girl again about why her life is so difficult and hard...]

Hitting the Road

I was so ready for our vacation...life is good here, but sometimes everyone worries so much about my well being I feel like I'm 6 yrs old. Molly and I escaped the confines of Vladimir to go running around St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev, in that order and I got to be an adult and a city girl once again.

I'll start by telling you about the train. I have become much more intimately acquainted with the Russian train system, particularly night trains. The best option is to go "platzcart" which is the cheapest, and means "thrown into the mass group with everyone else". Because your train is open and full of many people walking around, it's actually safer. The next class up is "kupe" which costs a lot more and consists of 4 people in an enclosed compartment. If you don't like each other, someone smells, or someone is creepy, you're still stuck with them. Sometimes you get a little free food in kupe, but this didn't happen on one of our legs. However, we did meet some old Russian men who for some reason knew only the word "boyfriend" in English. It all worked out just fine but I have no desire to repeat the experience. Our trip was a mix of both types of travel because we bought tickets so late in the year. Everyone has a bunk/shelf they can sleep or sit on, but when you have the top, your options are pretty limited.

Here's a picture our compartment and one of the funny sign during a "kupe" leg where the train was actually clean and included food. Notice the English translations.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Ending the Semester

Turned out to be a very emotional experience as I said goodbye to all my classes. On the last day, we have a party where I pass back exams and we eat/talk/hang out.

My conversation class was first, choosing to throw a dinner party in the kitchen. During some of our lessons, we've discussed art, food and music (appropriately, looking through books of impressionists and others, eating, and listening to various American genres during these times). My class sat me down and told me that to reciprocate my generous sharing of culture, they'd prepared a traditional Russian meal, which I should enjoy with them and remember always. So, there we sat, surrounded by caviar, pyrogs with meat, fruit salad, a special holiday salad with fish and beets, and a rather dangerous holiday beverage from the Ukraine known as "medavohoo" (approximate pronunciation). Several hours, a few candles, and many glasses later, our evening was complete. As one student told me, "Nekolye, celebrating the new year is a process".

The next day began with my 545 PM class of about 8 girls, who thoroughly embarassed me by standing up and clapping when I walked in, and giving me a terribly cute string of stuffed angels with "LOVE" across them. My 730 PM adult class showed up with a nesting doll and lacquer box, then dragged me to a local cafe where they insisted on buying dinner and defended me from the dubious advances of the very drunk married man at the table next to us. The next day brought more eating and cafe-ing, plus a pair of real rabbit fur gloves to protect me from 'the Russian winter' (which has yet to appear).

The worst was grading written exams, because I'd be sitting there, exasperatedly staring at the last page wondering why they couldn't have written a few more sentences on the essay and then come across a scribble at the bottom that said "Nicole, I love you" at which point I generally become useless.

Here's a picture of our conversation class.